Which Shipping Companies Are Ready for the Coming Arctic Heavy Fuel Oil Ban?

With the northern hemisphere winter and next month’s MEPC73 approaching, the Clean Arctic Alliance has publicly called on shipping companies already carrying cargo across the Arctic to be transparent about their choice of fuel. While the IMO’s Polar Code already recommends ship operators “not to use or carry heavy fuel oil in the Arctic”, it is not binding. With an Arctic HFO ban on the way, The Clean Arctic Alliance wants to know – which shipping companies will become flagships for a HFO Free Arctic?

First published on the shipping news website Splash 24/7 on 13/9/2018

In April this year, a meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC72) in London agreed to move forward on developing a ban on heavy fuel oil – for use and carriage as fuel from Arctic shipping. My colleague Dr Sian Prior and I wrote about how the world’s dirtiest shipping fuel would be banned from the Arctic – why it should be banned, and how the ban was going to take place.

Heavy fuel oil is a dirty and polluting fossil fuel accounting for 80% of marine fuel used worldwide. Around 75% of marine fuel currently carried in the Arctic is HFO. With climate change fuelling high winter temperatures and driving sea ice melt, Arctic waters are opening up to increased shipping in search of shorter transit times – and greatly increasing the risks of HFO spills.

Already banned in Antarctic waters, if HFO is spilled in cold polar waters, it breaks down slowly, proving almost impossible to clean up. A HFO spill would have long-term devastating effects on Arctic indigenous communities, livelihoods and the marine ecosystems they depend upon. HFO is also a greater source of harmful emissions of air pollutants,  such as black carbon, than alternative fuels, such as distillate fuel and liquefied natural gas (LNG). When emitted and deposited on Arctic snow or ice, the climate warming effect of black carbon is up to five times more than when emitted outside the Arctic, such as in the tropics.

Now, with the northern hemisphere winter and next month’s MEPC73 approaching, the Clean Arctic Alliance has publicly called on shipping companies already carrying cargo across the Arctic to be transparent about their choice of fuel. While the IMO’s Polar Code already recommends ship operators “not to use or carry heavy fuel oil in the Arctic”, it is not binding. With an Arctic HFO ban on the way, the Clean Arctic Alliance wants to know – which shipping companies will become flagships for a HFO Free Arctic?

We are going to keep asking – companies using the Arctic “shortcut” bear the burden of responsibility for ensuring that their transits neither risk devastating the already beleaguered Arctic environment with an oil spill, and that their emissions do not further contribute to the Arctic melt.

As a communications advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance – and one that has handled crisis communications for a number of organisations, I finding the responses – or lack thereof – intriguing. Some of the Arctic shippers have failed to respond either publicly or privately; some respond with some good information, showing a willingness to move in the right direction, but do not seem to clearly understand or engage with the issue. Perhaps they are just hoping that the Arctic/HFO issue will go away… which it will not.   

We recently challenged the world’s biggest container shipping company, Maersk, to come clean about how it plans to fuel the Venta Maersk on its trial run across the northern sea route. To its credit, Maersk responded, directly, privately and via shipping media and social media. The answer, however was a little ambiguous, with Maersk simply saying it planned to use “low sulphur fuel”. When we pointed out that such a fuel could be low in sulphur, and still a viscous residual fuel, Maersk responded on Twitter, saying that “The Ultra Low Sulphur Fuel that we will use for this trial is on spec with Marine Distillate Fuels, if not better. On this trial journey it is the best choice of fuel to use from both an operational and environmental point of view.”

Acknowledging that this particular fuel will result in lower emissions of sulphur and particulates, but that it still falls between the description of a residual fuel and a distillate fuel, the Clean Arctic Alliance quizzed Maersk about what would happen to such a fuel if spilled in the cold waters of the Arctic – would it evaporate, or would it emulsify? We’re looking forward to hearing more from Maersk on this.

We want to know what the potential environmental impact of a spill of Maersk’s choice of fuel would be on Arctic wildlife and communities. Elsewhere, we noticed that Maersk has fitted a vessel – albeit a product tanker – in Rotterdam with Flettner rotors, in an effort to reduce fuel consumption, so we are heartened to see that the company is taking some progressive steps towards decarbonisation.

Following news that the Australia’s Ironbark Zinc will charter the world’s largest icebreaking bulk carrier, the Nunavik – owned by Canadian shipping company Fednav – for its zinc mining operations in northern Greenland, the Clean Arctic Alliance laid down a similar challenge to Fednav. While there was no public statement from Fednav, in a press statement regarding its operations in Greenland, Ironbark did state that it “ensured that the Nunavik made this journey consuming low sulphur marine diesel oil instead of conventional heavy fuel oil (HFO) while in Greenland waters.”

Ironbark’s statement is, to some degree, laudable, but it opens up several questions. The Nunavik is reportedly using heavy fuel oil while in the open ocean. Obviously when it enters the Arctic waters around Greenland, it will presumably still have HFO on board for the return journey unless it has all been used on the outward journey. By not burning HFO in Greenland’s waters, Fednav is avoiding emissions of black carbon, which speed up Arctic melting. However black carbon emissions from burning HFO while the ship is operating on the open ocean can also contribute to the ice melt. Furthermore, by carrying HFO on board, Fednav is flirting with a disaster of unimaginable proportions, with potential long term impacts for Greenland’s communities and livelihoods. Perhaps neither Fednav or Ironbark have read the small print – the forthcoming discussions on a ban on heavy fuel oil will cover a ban not just on use, but on its carriage for use as marine fuel oil. In other words, you cannot sail into the Arctic with HFO on board, while burning something else and claim that it’s all good.

Last week, the Clean Arctic Alliance made a public request to China’s COSCO, the world’s fourth largest container ship company, about its use of HFO in the Arctic, following the voyage of the Tian’en across the Northern Sea Route to Rouen, in France. At the time of publishing this article, COSCO had not yet responded. We’re hoping that COSCO, and China, can come on board and support an Arctic HFO ban. A note to COSCO – we appreciate you were transporting wind turbines to Europe, but this nod to the global energy transition doesn’t get you off the hook.

Back at MEPC72 in April, Russia was one of the laggards when it came to supporting a ban on HFO. So it’s heartening to see that during a recent summit, both President Vladimir Putin  and  Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto agreed to work on moving towards “more environmentally friendly fuels in the Arctic” with the Kremlin suggesting that the prohibition of residual fuel use and carriage, and simultaneously reducing black carbon emissions could be a first step.

Although President Putin had vowed earlier this year to increase Northern Sea Route (NSR) shipping tenfold, the NSR has already seen 81% increase in transport volume for the year to date – 9.95m tonnes, compared to the 5.5 million tonnes in the whole of 2017. While the vast majority of this tonnage is destinational shipping – bound for Russian ports and not transit shipping – crossing between the Pacific and Atlantic – a Russian move towards cleaner fuel – albeit still a fossil fuel  – is an important step. While the Clean Arctic Alliance recognise LNG as a transitional fuel for the Arctic, we believe that is in the interest of the global shipping industry to decarbonise entirely. DNV-GL’s Energy Transition Outlook 2018, released this week,  has called for “carbon robust ships, and states that “decarbonization will be one of the megatrends that will shape the maritime industry over the next decades, especially in light of the new IMO greenhouse gas strategy” – and has found that fossil fuel demand will peak globally around 2023.

At October’s MEPC73, we’re also asking member states to renew their commitment to making the Arctic HFO free, while pressing the naysayers and fence-sitters to think again . Getting the international politics right is key – but we need brave shipping industry leaders to bring pressure to bear national governments, and to drive the momentum towards a HFO Free Arctic.

Dave Walsh is Communications Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, made up of not-for-profit organisations committed to a ban on use of HFO as marine fuel in the Arctic.

First published on the shipping news website Splash 24/7 on 13/9/2018

 

Doing Comms: What does a Communications Advisor Do All Day?

I do comms and strategy. That is, I write and communicate, mostly on environmental campaigns and science issues, as well devising ways to help organisations achieve their ambitions. As people – friends, family, even clients – are often perplexed as to what this involves, I thought I’d have a go at actually communicating about what I do all day.

Doing comms does include traditional press officer tasks – like pushing “send” on media releases and haranguing overworked journalists. Getting a story published, however is only part of the job. Communications shouldn’t happen as an afterthought or in isolation, or for its own sake. It doesn’t matter how many centillions of people Like, Retweet or even read (heaven forbid) what I’ve just catapulted out into the ether, if this frenzy of attention cannot be converted into some kind of real world action.

Iceberg from Humboldt Glacier, Kane Basin, Nares Straight, Greenland.
Shadows from the Tailenguak Cliffs fall on Iceberg from Humboldt Glacier, Kane Basin, Nares Straight, Greenland.© Dave Walsh – More details

I do comms and strategy. That is, I write and communicate, mostly on environmental campaigns and science issues, as well devising ways to help organisations achieve their ambitions. As people – friends, family, even clients – are often perplexed as to what this involves, I thought I’d have a go at actually communicating about what I do all day.

Doing comms does include traditional press officer tasks – like pushing “send” on media releases and haranguing overworked journalists. Getting a story published, however is only part of the job. Communications shouldn’t happen as an afterthought or in isolation, or for its own sake. It doesn’t matter how many centillions of people Like, Retweet or even read (heaven forbid) what I’ve just catapulted out into the ether, if this frenzy of attention cannot be converted into some kind of real world action.
Continue reading “Doing Comms: What does a Communications Advisor Do All Day?” »

The River Flows

I said goodbye to my father last week. My sister, brother and I all spoke at his funeral. Here’s something I wrote, based on what I said.

Jim Walsh, 1942-2017. The Da - my father, photographed on 3rd June 2011.
Jim Walsh, 1942-2017. The Da – my father, photographed on 3rd June 2011.

I said goodbye to my father last week. My sister, brother and I all spoke at his funeral. Here’s something I wrote, based on what I said:

Fourteen years ago, I phoned him to tell him that I’d been offered to sail on the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, on a trip in the Tasman Sea off New Zealand. “That’s a great opportunity, Dave, you should consider it”. “Too late, Dad, I’ve already said yes”. He paused. “How did you get into all this stuff anyway?”

“Dad, I grew up in a house full of books about ships and adventure at sea, and maps and atlases and who knows what. How could I not want to go on adventures”. Another pause. “I was just content to read about it”. My dad never travelled very far, but his love for the River Slaney and the place we come from was complemented by his encyclopaedic knowledge – both local and global, and his imagination and storytelling. He instilled in his three children a sense of wonder and curiosity, and a sense of responsibility about the world around us. I’m going to miss his sense of humour, always a wry smile playing at the corner of his mouth, a yarn on the cusp of the telling. It’s not for nothing that they call the place we come from “The Liars Glen”. We put a box in the ground today, but my father is not really there, he’s down beside the River Slaney, where he is happiest.

Catalonia: State of Uncertainty

Having escaped police violence during Catalonia’s independence referendum on October 1st, trouble arrived this week in the town of Sant Cugat, where I live, just north of Barcelona.

Catalonia declares independence from Spain
Catalonia declares independence from Spain – crowds near the Parc de Cuitadella Barcelona, on October 27, after the Catalan Parliament ratifies the Yes outcome of the independence referendum held on October 1st. davewalshphoto.com

Note: This article first appeared on The Irish Times website on November 8, 2017. This version has links added, and some updates too. 

Having escaped police violence during Catalonia’s independence referendum on October 1st, trouble arrived this week in the town of Sant Cugat, where I live, just north of Barcelona.

On Monday night, an angry group of 300 people, waving Spanish flags, used knives to rip down a large banner that hung from the town hall. The banner read “Llibertat Presos Politics” – “Freedom for Political Prisoners” – in support of the Catalan government ministers and activists currently jailed in Madrid, following the recent declaration of the Catalan Republic.

The unionists tussled with local police and shouted at journalists, before leaving the banner in tatters on the city’s Rambla. It was strange way of going about building “unity”. The next morning, town council staff could be seen cleaning egg stains from windows.

In contrast, downtown Barcelona on October 27th was an ocean of blue, yellow and red, Esteladas, the flag of the pro-independence movement, as thousands packed into the city centre to celebrate the Catalan parliament’s acceptance of the October 1st “yes vote”.

Pro-independence gatherings tend to be peaceful, friendly and inclusive. If you turned up draped in a Spanish flag, you’d likely be welcomed. But that night, when Spanish flags appeared on the streets, people were assaulted and the windows of Catalunya Radio – a public broadcaster – were broken by protesters wearing la Rojigualda (the Spanish flag).

Passing into Catalonia from France a couple of days a later, I spotted a lone Spanish flag flapping in the wind. A hundred metres later, three Esteladas (the unofficial Catalan flag) flashed in the afternoon sun, their flagpoles straining under the tramontane wind. A hundred kilometres down the motorway, a banner on a bridge read “Willkommen in der Republik Katalonien”.

We are now living in a state of uncertainty, not quite Spain, and not yet the Republic of Catalonia. Ireland’s lengthy transition to independence is often cited here as a way to say “patience, patience”.

Since the declaration of the Catalan Republic, life has gone on. But things have changed. The Spanish government has applied Article 155 of its constitution, claiming it must uphold the unity of the Spanish state by seizing control of public institutions, including police and public broadcasters (Update: it seems to have, for now, backed down on the broadcasters).

Seven Catalan government ministers, after arriving in Madrid to facist chants and nazi salutes, were jailed after a hearing that lasted just a few minutes.

Two civil society activists, known as the “Jordis”, have spent more than three weeks in custody. Eight schoolteachers in the small town of Seu d’Urgell are under investigation for having debated the referendum in the classroom, after the parents of one child complained (both of whom are Guardia Civil). Two people in Lleida were arrested for criticism of police violence, while the editor of a popular satirical magazine El Jeuves is in trouble for making a joke about the Spanish police (using up all of Catalonia’s cocaine) – he had to admit in court that the satirical article was ‘fake news’. Since mid-September, a litany of court orders has been directed at activities, publications and websites that challenge the authority of the Spanish government.

Yet those involved in fascist-like or violent behaviour can seemingly act with impunity. The number 155 has now appeared alongside nazi swastikas daubed the houses of pro-independence supporters, and on a monument to the poet Verdaguer. A few days ago, one young man in Mataro was beaten and hospitalised while leaving his house wearing a pro-independence t-shirt.

The unleashing of Article 155 means the central government will seize back autonomy from Catalonia. On Tuesday, civil servants from Madrid arrived to “take over” government institutions in Barcelona, demanding that work be carried out in Castellano rather than Catalan, echoing the days when Catalan was banned under Franco.

General Strike in Catalonia: Protestors in Sant Cugat del Valles hold up yellow clothes and plastic bags to make a giant ribbon symbol, in protest of the Spanish governments seizing of Catalan media, public services overall autonomy, and the jailing of Catalan government ministers and activists. Dave Walsh 2017. davewalshphoto.com

 

General Strike in Catalonia
General Strike in Catalonia: Activists occupy the railtracks at the Sant Cugat del Valles FGC rail station as part of a strike that also saw major motorways being closed, in protest of the Spanish governments seizing of Catalan media, public services overall autonomy, and the jailing of Catalan government ministers and activists. Dave Walsh 2017. davewalshphoto.com

 

Today, Catalonia has shut down in a general strike, in an attempt to warn prime minister Mariano Rajoy of the power and resolve of the Catalan people. By 9am this morning, protesters had stopped traffic on the AP-7 Motorway, part of the Europe’s E-15 artery that links Spain and Portugal to the rest of Europe. (map demonstrating other blocks)

It’s not clear if the agreed elections on December 21st can happen in any fair way, especially if candidates are in prison or in exile. While a pro-independence coalition will likely win, the continuously intransigent Popular Party under Rajoy (which holds less than 10 per cent of seats in the Catalan parliament) is adamant it will continue to apply Article 155.

On December 4th, Dublin City Council will vote on whether the Catalan flag will fly from City Hall for a month. If councillors vote yes, this will be seen as a strong sign of solidarity for many people in Catalonia who, until their sacked president Carles Puigdemont arrived in Brussels last week, believed the EU had abandoned them. On Tuesday, he was joined by 200 Catalan mayors to protest the silence from the institutions.

Symbolic support is welcome, but it is unfortunately not enough. EU governments and opposition parties must hold the Rajoy government to account, to ensure the political prisoners are released and that a political solution is found to improve the relationship between Spain and Catalonia.

The outcomes of the forthcoming Catalan elections should be subject to rigorous scrutiny, to ensure they take place in a fair and democratic manner. EU members, whether countries or individual citizens, have a duty of care towards other inhabitants of this shared community.

By ignoring the Catalonia crisis, we risk its repercussions throughout Europe. This is about more than flags – the entire “European Project” could be at stake.

-Dave

Irishman in Barcelona: ‘We’d be happy to live in a Republic of Catalonia’

We spent from 5.30am on Sunday morning at the local library, or biblioteca, less than 100m from my home in Sant Cugat del Vallès, a town of 87,000 just over the hill from Barcelona. My partner and her father are from the French part of Catalonia, or Catalunya Nord, as it’s known. None of us could vote in the independence referendum, but after the authoritarian behaviour of the Spanish authorities in recent weeks, we wanted to help protect the voting centres.

Catalonia declares independence from Spain
Catalonia declares independence from Spain – crowds fill Placa de Sant Jaume, Barcelona, on October 27, after the Catalan Parliament ratifies the Yes outcome of the independence referendum held on October 1st.

Opinion: I want no part in a regime that hospitalises peaceful people who just want to vote

We spent from 5.30am on Sunday morning at the local library, or biblioteca, less than 100m from my home in Sant Cugat del Vallès, a town of 87,000 just over the hill from Barcelona. My partner and her father are from the French part of Catalonia, or Catalunya Nord, as it’s known. None of us could vote in the independence referendum, but after the authoritarian behaviour of the Spanish authorities in recent weeks, we wanted to help protect the voting centres.

As the sky slowly brightened outside, people chatted, read books, tried to sleep. Others had tea or coffee, or ate from the massive buffet of snacks that had appeared on a table. The Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan police, had visited the voting centres to check what was going on, then left. Everyone was prepared to block any seizure of voting materials, but I don’t think anyone was expecting the violence that the day would bring.

By 9am, the ballot box had appeared and the voting centre had been set up. We were all outside by now, protecting the door, looking in the window and applauding as the first vote was cast.

Then the stories started rolling in on social media. First it was about ballot boxes being seized. Videos from downtown Barcelona started coming through, where people were being slung aside by masked and armoured Policia Nacional riot squads. There seemed to be no escalation – no “please stand aside”. They simply arrived and battered people out of their way, old and young, as men in balaclavas swiped the ballot boxes. As voting centres were closed down, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont announced that voters could go to anywhere to vote, as a universal voting register was now in action.

Photographs of an elderly woman in Gracia with blood running down her face emerged. A voting official woman in one centre was dragged along the floor, her fingers broken by a riot cop before she was dragged down the stairs [Note, she later discovered that while injured, her fingers were not broken]. Later she returned, her hand bandaged, as many other injured did. Others were hit by rubber bullets.

A friend in Mataró made a video showing riot police marching towards the voting centre like a Roman Legion, then beating people out of the way with batons. Other videos show Guardia Civil and Policia Nacional challenging Mossos officers, or flinging aside the ones who were stepping between the Spanish forces and the Catalan voters. Firemen were beaten for attempting to do the same thing. One fireman I spoke to said “we just want to protect people”. I saw a photograph this morning of riot police standing over a table where voting officials were playing dominoes – the ballot boxes had been hidden away. Another polling station sent the police away with boxes full of worthless unmarked ballots – the real ballot boxes reappeared when the cops had left town.

In Sant Cugat, people came and went from voting centres, to eat, and rest, and return with friends and family. Mossos officers were now standing guard. By the afternoon, around 250 voting centres had been attacked throughout Catalonia, and the number of injured were stretching into the hundreds. There was a nervousness that something could happen in Sant Cugat. Fortunately, it did not.

When voting ended at the library, ballots were poured onto a table. An official held up the empty box, to a cheer of “hem votat!” – “we voted!” Then the count began, watched not just by official observers, but by the community. They counted, recounted, verified, then the results were posted on the window: 680 votes cast, 90.37 per cent for Sí.

Outside, the Mossos officers were applauded for standing by the people, before the voting officials and ballot box were escorted by the crowd to Sant Cugat’s city hall, for further verification.

Through Catalonia, 2,262,424 votes were counted. 90 per cent were yes votes, just 7.8 per cent voted no. Much will be made of the “low” participation – 42 per cent. It must be realised that out of over 2,500 voting stations, 400 were closed down by police – and ballot boxes stolen. 770,000 ballots are missing. With those ballots, more than 3 million people, out of an electorate of 5.5 million, would have expressed whether they wanted independence or not.


There will be arguments until the cows come home about the validity of this referendum, but no argument justifies what the Spanish government did. Regardless of whether the referendum can really understood as legal, or illegal, the EU will need to deal with its aftermath.

Ireland is a small country that found its independence, after a long struggle. Catalonia wants to become Europe’s next republic. Ireland has a lot of experience that it can share with Catalonia, and I believe the Catalans are ready to listen.

Today, the streets of Sant Cugat are normal; it seems like any other Monday. There is a difference, however. People I’ve talked this morning are shaking their heads and saying “it’s over”. They’re not talking about their hopes for independence, they’re referring to the relationship with the political elite in Madrid. Catalonia may still be technically within Spain, but in many people’s minds, they are already living in a new Republic.

We would be happy to live in a Republic of Catalonia. The Catalans have ambitions to do things differently. The government has been passing progressive laws on energy poverty, banning fracking, wage equality and the likes, all of which have been swatted away by Spain’s compromised constitutional court.

Spanish online newsite El Espanol is reporting that the interior ministry has spent €31.7 million deploying police forces to stop the Catalan independence referendum. If Catalonia remains in Spain, it must be a Spain where I am not required to subsidise Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular, the Guardia Civil or the Policia Nacional, when it involves the beating up and hospitalising peaceful, ordinary people who committed no crime, other than a desire to vote. I want no part of that.

Irishman in Barcelona: ‘We’d be happy to live in a Republic of Catalonia’

First published in The Irish Times on October 2nd, 2017: Irishman in Barcelona: ‘We’d be happy to live in a Republic of Catalonia’

Further reading: Human Rights Watch: Spain: Police Used Excessive Force in Catalonia

Official health service report of injuries incurred during police attacks 

Map showing police attacks on Catalan Referendum – with images

Catalonia: We Just Want To Vote

“We just want to vote”
This is the message, in English, that many Catalans have been sending out to the rest of Europe, in the run up to this Sunday’s planned independence referendum.

We Just Want to Vote - Franco Returns. During a pre referendum social event in Placa Octavia, Sant Cugat del Valles, with dancing and other traditional activities, including castellets, the human towers, pro independence activists question the actions of th

“We just want to vote”

This is the message, in English, that many Catalans have been sending out to the rest of Europe, in the run up to this Sunday’s planned independence referendum.

Most Catalans, or more correctly, most people, who can vote here want to have a say, in what the Catalan Generalitat (regional government) has said will be a binding vote. Depending on which polls you read, less than half of voters want independence. While these stats are widely reported, I did read a poll today that suggested there would be 63% or more turnout and an 83% yes vote.

There’s plenty of commentators saying that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is right in saying that the Catalan vote is against the Spanish constitution, and that the Catalan government is right because they are fulfilling the mandate given to them by the electorate. Many millions of words have been written about how we got here – and whether the problem goes back months, years, decades, beyond the Civil War and into medieval times. Whether it’s over money, or the banning of the Catalan language during the Franco era or Catalan exceptionalism. These are all valid discussions, but for the last couple of weeks, I’ve become more concerned with the ongoing censorship and the attacks on civil rights in Catalonia by the Spanish establishment.

Rajoy and his government – and the Madrid establishment, are so determined to stop people getting to polling stations that authorities have threatened teachers and more than 700 mayors with prosecution. Peaceful protesters are being accused of sedition – of threatening to overthrow the state. Hundreds of websites, including ones run by the Catalan government, political parties or civil society groups have been blocked. On Friday, Google’s Madrid office was raided and it was asked to remove a smartphone app that provided information on nearby polling stations. Google complied. The Spanish government has created an internet “whack-a-mole-game” where every time a court order is applied, several mirrors of a website appear, and Catalan President Carles Puigdemont just tweets out a new link. Last week, the Guardian Civil raided printers, newspapers, local government offices, political parties, and even the secretariat of the .cat domain, arresting 14 people, including a junior economy minister. Referendum materials were seized, including 10 million ballots. On Thursday, Puigdemont tweeted a video of new ballots being printed.

In response to the Spanish government crackdown, thousands of people took to the streets in a determined but cheerfully peaceful protest. A week later, they are still at it. On Thursday morning, I met a band of 50 or students chanting “votarem” – “we will vote”, on their way to Sant Cugat railway station. They were off downtown to demonstrate with thousands of others in support of the referendum. Catalonia’s students appear highly mobilised and motivated – classes have been suspended, and they have setting up open air help centres to advise senior citizens on where they can vote.

Pro-referendum students marching in Sant Cugat, Catalonia
Students leaving Sant Cugat to march in a pre-referendum march in Barcelona.

The ability of the Catalans to mobilise and organise mass events that involves food, music, dancing and fun is, at any time, impressive. Their ability to combine technology and community spirit in the face of oppression is extraordinary. The movement has been peaceful, fun, family-oriented, inclusive and good spirited. After referendum posters were seized, online repositories of posters were created, leading to flash mob style mass leafleting and postering operations.

The Madrid-appointed public prosecutor in Barcelona has said that minors attending demonstrations will now be monitored, while the leader of the Christian democratic and conservative political party, PPC, Xavier García Albio, is claiming that “only fanatics take children along to vote”. Trashy Madrid newspaper La Razon published an article claiming that Puigdemont is using children as “human shields”. Such claims are not only ridiculous, they are wrong in many ways – no one is using kids as shields, and where I come from it’s quite normal for families to attend activities important to taking part in society just as it here in Catalonia – or elsewhere in Spain.

Helicopters and light planes have been banned from above Barcelona for the weekend, in case the press broadcast pictures of cheering crowds. Except drones out in droves. Hordes of pro-independent farmers have driven tractors into central Barcelona, to camp out for the weekend. The Bombers, or fire service, has backed independence in a spectacular Greenpeace-style way, and has pledged to provide a safe corridor for voters to enter the polling stations.

In response to orders to the police to take control of voting centres – mainly schools – between Saturday night and Sunday night, members of the public are camping overnight in the schools, and apparently there’s mass tournaments of “rock, paper scissors” taking place.

Despite the peaceful movement here, the Rajoy government continues to treat the referendum like some kinds of sinister insurrection, and has drafted thousands of extra police from elsewhere in Spain. Many Guardia Civil are billeted in passengers ships in Barcelona port, where a TV camera picked up someone performing a Nazi Salute. One ship is painted in Looney Tunes characters, including Tweety and Sylvester, leading to the adoption of Tweety, aka Piolín, as a symbol of the pre-referendum movement. The Twitter hashtag #FreePiolín ended up trending worldwide. Warner Brothers since issued a “cease and desist” order to the Spanish government, forcing them to cover up Tweety and friends.

Tweety bird, Piolin, Catalan hero
Balloons in the shape Tweety bird, or Piolín the unlikely symbol of the Catalan Independence Movement in Sant Cugat. In the run up to the planned October 1st 2017 independence referendum, the Spanish government stationed police on board a ship in Barcelona port, painted with characters from Warner Brothers Looney Tunes. In response the hashtag #FreePiolin (#FreeTweety) was trending number 3 worldwide on Twitter.

The international response has been slow, but as the weekend draws near, it is picking up, with experts from the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights issuing a statement criticising Spain’s behaviour, and politicians from around the world adding their voice, including 57 MEPs. I’ve been busy haranguing the Irish Taoiseach and his ministers, as well as opposition leaders and spokespeople, senators and MEPs. I hope EU residents in Catalonia have been urging their governments to do the same. The last time I checked, Leo Varadkar’s government Ireland, and the main opposition party of Fianna Fáil, were still claiming that “the Catalonia independence referendum is an internal matter for Spain”, as party leader Michael Martin wrote in response to my email.

I responded:
“If Catalonia declares independence, it will not just be an internal issue for Spain. If Spain crushes the civil and human rights of the people here in Catalonia, and introduces further draconian measures to quell any disobedience towards its centralist, and let’s be clear, post-Francoist right wing government, then it will no longer be just an internal issue for Spain.”

The leader of Ireland’s Labour Party, Brendan Howlin wrote back to me, saying that the party supported the “right to self determination but we do believe it must be pursued through legal means”, and that “it is clear that the heavy handed approach by the Spanish Government to the proposed referendum in Catalonia will be more likely to inflame the dispute and strengthen the independence movement”. He promised to speak to the relevant minister. That’s more like it.

As someone who works on strategy and tactics in my professional life, the Spanish government seems to have done everything wrong, starting with one of the first rules of dealing with any conflict. It has failed to see the situation from its opponent’s point of view.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

While some Catalan independentists have, and always will want independence, many have been converted to the cause because of the Spanish government’s bullheaded “no” approach to any kind of realistic negotiation and simply demands loyalty and obedience. Its worthing noting that the current era of Catalan independence campaigning started off with Madrid pushed back on negotiations over money, pushing even middle of the road, liberal Catalan politicians to think of a different way forward. And that way forward, for many, means waving goodbye to Spain. The two nations are now speaking different languages, literally, and figuratively.

It’s a breakup.

Catalonia: I’m sorry Spain. It’s over between us.
Spain: I don’t think you love me enough.
Catalonia: It’s not you, it’s me. I still care about you. I just want to be on own.
Spain: You are not taking this relationship seriously. I want you to be loyal and to love me.
Catalonia: Goodbye Spain
Spain: You can’t just leave me like that. Come back here!
Catalonia: Well, then, fine, then, goodbye. Let’s meet for coffee soon.

The attitude of the Spanish government, coupled with the seemingly non-stopping slapping down of progressive regional laws on energy poverty, fracking bans and wage equality, and covert smear campaigns against Catalan leaders (Operation Catalonia) has hardly endeared Catalans to Spain’s conservative Partido Popular government.

The poll I mentioned above was a follow up from one conducted in mid-September – Since then, a projected 600,000 people who were going to abstain, now want to head to polling stations, enraged by the behaviour of the Rajoy government. Out of an electorate of 5.3 million, that’s significant.

At some point along the way, Rajoy could have rescued this situation and negotiating in good faith, even to stall the procés or give moderate secessionists a little of what they wanted. But he didn’t, because that’s not his style. He waited for Catalonia to trip itself up, which it hasn’t done, at least not yet.

“The Spanish government and [governing Popular Party] have been asleep at the wheel, waiting for it to end and now it’s got out of control,” – me, quoted in The Irish Times

Why does Rajoy want to block the vote? Why doesn’t he allow it, then work on watering down its authenticity, and declare it invalid? After all, he has declared it illegal, unconstitutional.

Maybe he is scared. Maybe he is scared because the Catalan independence movement has put a huge amount of effort into not just organising the referendum, but into laying out roadmaps of how it will manage a new, independent republic, down to how to attain citizenship through residency and how taxes will be managed.

He’s scared that the enormous, popular and good-natured outreach done by the likes of Catalan Foreign Minister Raül Romeva throughout European countries might have actually reaped results, and if a declaration of independence comes, a significant amount of countries may choose to recognise Catalonia as a valid, sovereign nation. He’s scared because while Brussels has mumbled about Catalonia not getting “automatic EU membership”, the ever ambitious, upwardly mobile and energetic Catalonia might just manage to set up trade, diplomatic and other agreements.

 

Catalonia Referendum Event, Sant Cugat del Valles
A couple walk home after taking part in a large pre-referendum gathering of music and dancing in Sant Cugat del Valles, just outside Barcelona, a week before the planned vote for Catalan independence. The Spanish government has threatened to stop the referendum, having declared it against Spain’s constitution.

He’s scared because Catalonia provides 20% of Spain’s GDP, which helps Spain to subsidise lower performing regions, and to keep tossing money at the national debt. He’s scared because of this money doesn’t keep coming in, it will create another financial crisis, and because if other regions see Catalonia waving goodbye, others – like his own Galicia and and the troublesome Basques might do the same.

And he’s worried about his own political future. If Rajoy blocks the vote, Spain will be in crisis. If he allows the vote, Spain could still be thrown into crisis. He seems to be sticking with the crisis that’s quantifiable – a crisis born of his own inaction.

It seems to me that Rajoy thinks – or at least did think – that the referendum battle could be won by force. But in asymmetrical battle, force is not always the strongest attribute.

I’m hoping that someone in Madrid has some sense, and that Spain’s boots on the ground aren’t pushed into intimidating or provoking people.. The world is watching Catalonia. It is watching Spain, and I hope Rajoy and his colleagues realise this.

I’m writing this late on Friday night. In 48 hours, we’ll know how the vote went, but will won’t yet know what Monday will bring. I’m hoping that people here can vote, and that the international observers find that the referendum has been carried out satisfactorily. I hope that everything goes peacefully. And I hope that Catalonia votes for independence, and that it gets it.

Dave Walsh, is a writer and communications consultant, living in Sant Cugat del Vallès, Barcelona. Following the events of October 1st, 2017, he wrote this article for the Irish Times.
Follow me on Twitter: @davewalshphoto

What my son taught me about the moon

After taking the monthly arrivals and departures of the moon for granted, my young son is teaching me to pay more attention.

Supermoon rising over Parc Collserola
Supermoon rising over Parc Collserola, near Sant Cugat del Valles, Barcelona, November 14th, 2016. The moon won’t be this close again until 2034. The last time the moon was so close was in 1948.

I remember being small boy, standing with my father in the field outside our house. Shivers ran down my spine, not because I was cold, but because I was craning my neck to contemplate the universe above me and because I realised its vastness and my own insignificant part in it.

My dad pointed out constellations and the Milky Way. Maybe that same night we were out spotting shooting stars, or watching the moon cross the river and drop behind the forest. Maybe that was many nights, all memorised into one night.

That feeling of partaking in the incomprehensible breadth of the universe has stayed with me, and I welcome it back whenever possible.  I remember lying across the pontoons of softly rolling inflatable boat in the Tasman Sea, thousands of metres of seawater below me, and a dozen or so kilometres of air above. And beyond that, the infinitesimal reach of the southern equator sky on an ink black moonless night.

My own son was born on a full moon, in a Brussels heatwave. In the moons that followed his birth, I began to think of it as his moon. I started to pay more attention to its monthly arrival, transformations and departure.

Less than a year and a half after he was born, Killian began noticing the moon in the clear Catalonia skies that we now live beneath. Before bedtime, he would seek out the moon and point at it, exclaiming “oawhhhhh!” We told him it was The Moon, or La Lune. It is now officially named “A Nune”.

He checks the sky – even sometimes during daylight – and finds what he’s after, well before we’ve noticed any pale white crescent in the blue. He spots “a nune” in storybooks, on advertising posters, in encyclopaedias, even on the logo for a local clothes shop. There’s a cracked tile on our terrace which also qualifies as “a nune”.

There’s been some 530 full moons since my own birth. I grew up metres from the ebb and flow of the River Slaney’s tides; during bimonthly spring tides, when the the Earth, Moon and Sun are in alignment, these tides rise higher. This put our laneway underwater, leaving me and my siblings with the improbable, yet irrefutable excuse of the moon being to blame for our late arrival.

Still, it has taken until now for me to discover new ways to appreciate the moon’s importance. We mark our lives by the moon, through march of the months. The moon pulls on the blood in our veins, as it pulls the tides. Thanks to Killian, I now pay more attention to the progression of the moon’s phases, its daily trajectory and the daily change in time of moonrise and moonset. I watched the last moon rise with Jupiter for a few days. We, as a family watched the spectacular supermoon rise last November.

On moonless nights, when Killian checks the sky, pointing at a planet – Venus or Jupiter, or a passing airliner and asking “a nune?” I am impatient on his behalf, for our satellite to return. It arrived as dusk fell last night, a pale sliver to the west, just 2.4% of it visible. My son stood looking out at the waxing crescent again tonight before bedtime. When the full moon comes April 9, it will be Killian’s 21st.

The morning after I wrote all of the above, Killian’s first act of the day was to fetch and put on his wizard hat. Made by his mum, it features a crescent moon and stars.

Moon rising over mountains in Nugatsiaq, Baffin Bay, Greenland
Moon rising over mountains in Nugatsiaq, Baffin Bay, Greenland

Some Good News: We are all crew on this voyage

About a month ago, Deutsche Welle journalist Irene Quaile AKA Iceblogger wrote, in a piece titled Some Arctic good news – not #fakenews!

“With the environment and climate under constant fire from the actions of President Trump, it is great to end the week with a little piece of good news”.

Greenpeace ship Esperanza on her route towards Antarctica in a Force 10 storm.
Greenpeace ship Esperanza on her route towards Antarctica in a Force 10 storm.

About a month ago, Deutsche Welle journalist Irene Quaile AKA Iceblogger wrote, in a piece titled Some Arctic good news – not #fakenews!

“With the environment and climate under constant fire from the actions of President Trump, it is great to end the week with a little piece of good news”.

“One thing that made me smile was the announcement that the famous cruise ship operator Hurtigruten had signed the Arctic Commitment, calling for a ban on the use of marine heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic.”

“So let’s go into the weekend with a round of applause for the tireless campaigners for a clean Arctic. It is hard for an environment journalist to be optimistic in these difficult times. But every little helps. And winning over the cruise ship industry which so many people associate with holiday expeditions into remote areas with intact nature and spectacular wildlife would be a great way to get a wider public “on board” for the voyage to protecting the icy regions of our warming planet.”

Continue reading “Some Good News: We are all crew on this voyage” »

2016 in review: What I Got Up To and What Happens Next

What a year – moving countries, working for Antarctic and Arctic protection and joining the quest to halt international trade deals in between.

Star, Sant Cugat del Valles
Christmas Star, Carrer de Sant Antoni, Sant Cugat del Valles, Barcelona

2016 went by in a flash, between moving countries, working hard for Antarctic and Arctic protection, and joining the quest to halt international trade deals.

When I set out to write this, I realise that had not posted to ColdReality.org since early in the year. For someone who professes to make a living from writing and communications, it’s lamentable. In my defence, I’ve been busy, and this is no bad thing, as it has culminated in a very successful and exciting year, with opportunities to work with great people on important projects.

At the end of February, I moved from Brussels to the outskirts of Barcelona with my partner Nathalie and young son Killian, and joined an international team of co-workers at La Cleda in Sant Cugat del Vallès, on the edge of the incredible Parc de Collserola. I can’t do enough to thank Pep Wennberg, the founder of La Cleda, for taking in and helping a newly arrived stranger, and the rest of the Cledians for their support and friendship. Catalonia is an intriguing place to be at the moment, as it is in the the midst of a push for independence from Spain, adding to already politically and culturally vibrant atmosphere. I’ve learned the basics of Catalan – but I’ve plenty of homework to do.

Orca seen from the bow of the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, Antarctica’s Ross SeaThe Ross Sea received protection at CCAMLR in 2016. (c) Dave Walsh
© Dave Walsh

From Sant Cugat, I’ve continued to work alongside talented network of colleagues at the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, and together celebrated the landmark creation of the world’s largest marine protected area, in the Ross Sea. Thank you and congratulations to Mike Walker, Elsa Evers, Ricardo Roura and the rest of the team, and Andrea Kavanagh and her team at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Pancake ice on Arctic Sea Ice
Pancake Ice and floes – on Arctic Sea Ice, Fram Strait, between Greenland and Svalbard.

Over the northern summer, I joined  the Clean Arctic Alliance, as a communications advisor to a coalition of NGOs campaigning to ban polluting heavy fuel oil from ships operating in Arctic waters. We chalked down some success at the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee meeting 70, in London in October, with the IMO starting to move towards regulation of HFO. To help build this campaign, I work closely with marine science and policy expert Sian Prior, who I thank for introducing me to the project, and Charlotte Inglis, Lisa Grau and Helena Murphy at the European Climate Foundation. I’m off to Tromsø, in Northern Norway in late January 2017, to attend the Arctic Frontiers conference, where I’ll be helping run a side event.

In June, I had the honour becoming a member of the board of directors at The Arctic Institute, a Washington-DC based think tank, following an invitation from its founder, Malte Humpert, and President and Managing Director Victoria Herrmann. I also continue to help the Institute develop its media profile.

I’ve consulted to several different Greenpeace offices since 2004, and every year brings a new adventure. This year, I stepped in to provide interim communications and strategic guidance to Greenpeace Africa, and a dispersed network of campaigners in Europe, working to protect the forests of the Congo Basin. Thank you to Victorina CheThoener, John Bowler, and all the team for welcoming me in. I hope my successor, Maureen Grisot, is enjoying her role.

Later in the year, I stepped into a communications advisor role with Greenpeace Netherlands, joining European campaigners working with a larger within a large civil society coalition to put a stop to the threat of dodgy trade deals like TTIP, CETA and TISA. I helped develop messaging, and worked to secure media coverage of leaks concerning trade agreements that jeopardise the livelihoods of ordinary people.  Thanks to Martin Lloyd,  Susan Cohen Jehoram, Milo Laureij, Shira Stanton, Juergen Knirsch and Mark Breddy for bringing me onto this project.

I’ve continued to write, albeit on less serious topics for a cycling website setup by my friend Damien Debarra, Furious Riding, and work with photography Millennium Images and VW Pics to get my work out to the wider world. Check out this book cover, using an image of mine from Yellowstone, and inclusion in a recent National Geographic Traveller article about Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.

And that, folks, was a brief and abridged account of my 2016. I’d like to thank everyone who helped – not just the folks that I mentioned above, but all of those who helped us with our move south, especially my brother Mick, who drove the truck most of the way from Brussels to Barcelona!

Happy New Year to everyone – I looking forward to working together in 2017. Those with the imagination to propose a better world, have significant challenges ahead of us, including convincing those around us that despair is not a  viable option and that hope and action must be our daily fuel.

Got questions, or ideas about how we can collaborate in 2017? Get in touch.

Dave

Crossing Europe’s Frontiers #2: Pointless Pyrenean Traffic Jams

We’re all here, nose to tail, thanks to the “border controls” that the French government, brought into force following the Paris November 13th attacks. In a previous article, I documented my recent slow crossing from Belgium into France. That crossing was rip-roaringly rapid in comparison to today’s torpid crawl. This is the real deal, with three 120 kilometre-an-hour lanes slowed to nothing, then funneled into one. It’s a farce.

Massive queues crossing Spain-France Border

New Year’s Day 2016: Our car is one of thousands stalled on the AP-7 autopista, waiting to cross the Pyrenees into France. The fire has gone out of the bellies of most drivers, who’ve quit their frenzied switching of lanes and are now going through the robotic motions. First gear, handbrake off, roll forward, brake, neutral, handbrake on. Repeat.

Everyone has realised there’s no easy way out of this, so they’re giving up the wheel to their passengers, having slow-moving picnics, or in the case of two cars in the lane next to us, have broken out hookas to smoke some shisha. A recovery truck goes by in the hard shoulder, carrying a VW Passat that has given up.

We’re all here, nose to tail, thanks to the “border controls” that the French government, brought into force following the Paris November 13th attacks. In a previous article, I documented my recent slow crossing from Belgium into France. That crossing was rip-roaringly rapid in comparison to today’s torpid crawl. This is the real deal, with three 120 kilometre-an-hour lanes slowed to nothing, then funneled into one. It’s a farce.

Continue reading on blather.net »